Thursday, October 2, 2014

Spotlight on J. Patrick Lewis + DMC Challenge


Who is the man behind the chocolate mustachio?
After a wild and rugged youth as a bronco rider, lobster fisherman, opera singer, extreme skateboarder, and spy (I have been to Russia thirteen times—shhh!), I now live undercover in XXXXX, Ohio with my wife Sue and our two K-9 guard Chihuahuas. Please do not ask about my secret tattoos.
(One must be circumspect in dealing with those sporting chocolate facial hair.)

Pat, with a convenient chin rest.
Let's try this again:
An Indiana Hoosier by birth, I discovered poetry late in life, but have been running fast to catch up. I have published 90 children’s picture/poetry books to date with Creative Editions, National Geographic, Knopf, Atheneum, Chronicle Books, Candlewick, Schwartz & Wade, Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, Dial, Sleeping Bear Press, Holiday House, and others. I was recently given the 2010-2011 NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award, and I was the Poetry Foundation’s third U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate (2011-2013).
Oh, yes... that J. Patrick Lewis.  

The one beloved by readers worldwide.  How lucky am I to have Pat hanging out at Today's Little Ditty this month?!  (Heck, I don't think he even knows about my secret tattoos– shhh!)

As for that chocolate mustache? Neither a digital recorder, nor a hidden camera, it was simply a tasty way to promote Pat's 2012 poetry collection If You Were a Chocolate Mustache (Wordsong).  Today, my mission is to introduce you to one of J. Patrick Lewis' more recent collections:  EVERYTHING IS A POEM (Creative Editions, 2014)

Creative Editions, August 2014
ISBN: 978-1568462400
Find at, Barnes & Noble,
or at your local independent bookstore.
Delicious in its own right, this collection spans nearly 30 years (1982-2010) of Pat's soul-satisfying poetry, beginning with a two-page foreward that gives readers a taste of what drives this man to do what he does so well.

The 59 poems included are divided into eight categories – animals, people, reading, sports, riddles and epitaphs, mother nature, places, and a mix.  A testament to Pat's versatility, the poems are savory and sweet, as unique in their forms as they are in their content, yet they all simmer in the imagination. 

For poetry fans, this is a must-have collection. Complemented by Italian artist Maria Cristine Pritelli's exquisite acrylic and airbrushed illustrations, Pat's poetry is as comforting as an old friend, and as stimulating as a new acquaintance. In our house, we enjoy reading this book aloud after family dinners– a dessert we share together.

So what do you say we find out more about J. Patrick Lewis, starting with some favorites?

      Favorite food: 
Anything my mother used to make, but especially her gnocchi, apple dumplings, date bars, and coffee cake.

      Favorite country you’d like to visit: 
It must be Russia since I have been there so often.

      Favorite subject in school:  
English (girls were a close second).

      Favorite childhood memory: 
Sitting with my brothers in my mother’s or father’s lap and being read to from The Childcraft Series.

      Favorite children’s book: 
Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

      Favorite children’s poet: 
Did you mean “children’s poets”? I can’t name just one. Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll . . . . Okay, that’s two, and that’s quite enough.

It's surprising that you were a college professor of economics for 30 years prior to pursuing creative writing full-time.  What was it that eventually lured you into the world of poetry? 
At the risk of providing more information than your readers want or need: I was dating an English professor at the time who introduced me to poetry. We read poems to each other—not mine, not hers, but the classics. It didn’t take long before the hook bit, and I was a goner.

For someone who first discovered their passion for poetry at nearly 40 years old, thousands of hours of what Jane Yolen calls "butt in chair" time has resulted in an astounding number of books for children. Do you think there is an advantage to coming to poetry later in life?    
No, it’s a disadvantage arriving at poetry so late because you can’t get away from the fact that you lived for over three decades without poetry.

What is one of the most surprising things you've learned over your extensive publishing career?
What I have learned is that writing poetry is damnably difficult, but then it should be. Why choose something to do with your life that is easy? Where’s the challenge? Where is the fun in that?
Pat, at a typical school visit, one of 530 or so
he’s done around the world.

In a 2012 interview with Renée LaTulippe on No Water River, you assert that the poem is more important than the poet:  
"If the poem is any good, you should be able to erase the poet's name.  Poets biodegrade.  Poems, if they have any chance of living on, might well do so without the poet." 
What do you feel are some of the qualities of a timeless children's poem?
Timeless qualities: a theme that resonates with children (animals, nature, nonsense, the universe); words that motorboat on metaphor; and a rhythm that refuses to vacate the mind.

When I asked Pat if there was a particular poem he'd like to share from EVERYTHING IS A POEM, he suggested perhaps the title poem, or "A Tomcat Is" ...or maybe I'd like to choose one myself?  Since I can send you over to Renée LaTulippe's beautiful write up, where she features both of those poems, as well as another favorite of mine, "Mosquito," I decided to go ahead and choose something else.  It was not easy, let me tell you.  There were several I would have loved to share with you, but I ended up with "Fireflies," because I felt it so aptly fits Pat's definition of timeless children's poetry: 

EVERYTHING IS A POEM, J. Patrick Lewis, illus. Maria Cristina Pritelli


                     An August night–
                         The wind not quite
                     A wind, the sky
                         Not just a sky–
                     And everywhere
                         The speckled air
                     Of summer stars
                         Alive in jars.

                            © 1986 J. Patrick Lewis. All rights reserved.

You've said that you strive to write "in a hundred voices"– across the curriculum and for all ages. From such a broad spectrum, how did you go about choosing which of your poems would appear in Everything is a Poem?
I sent Creative Editions c. 160 poems, and they chose about 60 to include in the book. I was delighted with their choices, but I would have been just as pleased if they had selected from the other 100 poems.

A compilation like this one is quite an accomplishment. Yet as a poet, you are continually stretching and transforming yourself– both in the wide variety of subjects that you write about and the assortment of poetic forms that you use.  Describe for us what you see when you look in the mirror?
I make it a habit not to look in a mirror. A mirror has a way of looking back at me and shouting intimations of my mortality. But to your point: I do aim to write about every subject under the sun and in every verse form. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve made a respectable start, I think.

Can you give us a hint about what’s coming up next for you?
Here’s a list of my new and forthcoming books:

My 2015 Books:
  • The Wren and the Sparrow, Kar-Ben Publishing, (Yevgenia Nayberg, ill.), March 2015 
  • Just Joking: Animal Riddles, National Geographic, March 2015 
  • Bigfoot Is Missing: Poems from the Cryptozoo (w/Kenn Nesbitt), Chronicle, Spring 2015 
  • M is for Monster: A Fantastic Creatures Alphabet, Sleeping Bear Press, Gerald Kelley (ill.), March 1, 2015 
  • Book of Nature Poetry, National Geographic (photos), Fall 2015 
  • Make the Earth Your Companion, Creative Editions, Fall 2015
          2014 Books:
  • Poemobiles: Crazy Car Poems, (with Douglas Florian). Schwartz & Wade/Random House, Jeremy Holmes (ill.) 
  • Everything Is a Poem: The Best of J. Patrick Lewis. Creative Editions, Maria Cristina Pritelli (ill.) August 2014 
  • Harlem Hellfighters, Creative Editions, Gary Kelley (ill.), Fall 2014 
  • Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. Creative Editions, John Thompson (ill.)—reissued. Fall 2014 
  • Voices from the March on Washington, 1963 (with George Ella Lyon), Wordsong/BMP, Fall 2014
For a complete list of my books to date, see

If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?
Only one piece of advice: Never trust anyone who writes more than he or she reads. Samuel Johnson said that a couple of centuries ago. Reading always comes first.

Finally, please tell us what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge.

I’d like to challenge your readers to write a “zeno,” which is a new verse form I invented. The zeno was inspired by the “hailstone  sequence” in mathematics. I define a zeno as a 10-line poem with 8,4,2,1,4,2,1,4,2,1 syllables that rhyme abcdefdghd. Here is an example:

         A Third Grader Reflects
         On the Good Old Days

         Why isn’t elementary school

         filled with sizzle,
         fizz and
         I wish I knew
         why be-
and another, from EVERYTHING IS A POEM:

EVERYTHING IS A POEM, J. Patrick Lewis, illus. Maria Cristina Pritelli

         by The Old Masters

         The Michelangelo thunder

         of an April
         at what follows
         a great
         spring meadows in

I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't wait to sink my teeth into this challenge! Throughout the month, send your zenos to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form. 

Thanks, Pat, for the conversation 
and for getting our creative juices flowing!

Hey teachers and parents of creative kids! I would love for more students to get involved. Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities to interact with some fabulous contemporary children's poets and authors while having fun trying out different poetry forms, like this month's zeno. Please help me spread the word!

Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a Halloween wrap-up post on October 31st. To sweeten the deal (it is Halloween after all), Creative Editions has graciously provided me with a treat– a copy of EVERYTHING IS A POEM which I will send to one lucky participant selected randomly at the beginning of next month!


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

No, WAIT!  I almost forgot (nah... not really), it's time to announce the winner of last month's ditty challenge, brought to us by Irene Latham.  Thanks again to Irene and to everyone who sent in such terrific poems of address! has determined that the winner of DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, by Irene Latham, illustrated by Anna Wadham, is:

Reading to the Core 
Congratulations, Catherine!

Be sure to get your fill at the Poetry Friday roundup, hosted today by Jama Rattigan at Alphabet Soup


  1. Great interview! The zeno sounds like a fun challenge. I'll need the guidelines right on the keyboard in front of me--it's a good thing I enjoy puzzles!

    1. You and me both, Diane! I thought you might enjoy this challenge. :)

  2. Thanks for sharing these, Michelle - Pat really does have a great talent for finding the music and truth in every subject. When I first found out about this book, I remember thinking, you know you've made it in children's lit. when they give you a greatest hits collection! Congrats, Pat!

  3. Wow, Michelle and Pat. Fabulous interview. "A Third Grader Reflects" -- I can't wait to share this one with the third grade teachers whose classrooms I'm visiting this school year.

    1. Thanks, Laura. Pat sure does a great job of capturing the third grade voice, doesn't he?

  4. A wonderful interview and challenge, Michelle and Pat. I'm continuing to read and enjoy Everything Is A Poem, just saw a copy of Voices From The March on Washington 1963-what I read was wonderful. Thanks for all!

    1. Lucky you, Linda! Voices From the March is next on my list.

  5. A Must-Read, indeed! I love Best of... collections... thank you for sharing this one. Also love Pat's "words that motorboat on metaphor." LOVE! THank you, Michelle. xo

    1. Yes! I love that too, Irene. Even Pat's prose is poetry!

  6. Great post, Michelle. Thanks so much. I love playing with syllable poems. Will have to try the zeno.

  7. Terrific interview, Michelle and Pat! I so love "The speckled air/Of summer stars/Alive in jars."
    Have to put my thinking cap on for this challenge.

    1. I agree, Buffy, those lines are incredible. I'm sure you'll come up with something fantabulous and zenoriffic for this month's challenge!

  8. For some reason, I never knew about Pat dating an English professor! Ooh-la-la, juicy tidbit! Fabuloso interview Pat and Michelle. Love all the poems you shared, too -- he looks quite dapper with a chocolate mustache, don't you think?

  9. Love this! Getting to work on my poem right now!

  10. I always do ABCs of poetry in April but never make it to Z. Now I have a form for Z. I loved meeting Pat today is this personal interview. My students enjoyed trying out the Fib Poem based on the Fibonacci series. We will give the zeno a try.

    1. Let's hear it for the letter Z! This form is harder than it looks (especially with that bit of rhyme thrown in), but I'm pretty convinced, Margaret, that your class can do anything they set their minds to!

  11. Wonderful interview. It's encouraging to find someone who came to poetry so late in life. Thanks for this.

    1. Oh, I agree, Rosi! If there's a late bloomer club, I'm so there.

  12. Wow! What a wonderful interview with such a talented, prolific writer! Thank you so much--this is very inspiring. I will definitely have to give the "zeno" a shot this month!

    1. So glad you're feeling inspired, Becky! Can't wait to see what you come up with.

  13. Such a great interview! And, such a prolific poet. So interesting to hear of Lewis' path to poetry.

    1. Thanks, Tara. It is hard to imagine a more roundabout way to get to poetry than through economics!

  14. Thanks for this wonderful interview, Michelle! I have many volumes of Pat's poetry, and it looks like I'll be adding one more. The zeno challenge sounds like fun. Hopefully I'll be able to finish a poem before the month is over!

    1. That would be great, Catherine. I'd love to see what you come up with!

  15. Interesting interview, wonderful poems, and an excellent challenge!

  16. I just read the new challenge--it sounds fun but but hard. I think I'll try it. It's really cool that it's a poetry form J. Patrick Lewis made up. But now I want to eat a chocolate mustache! :)

    1. Why doesn't this surprise me? Chocolate and mustaches are two of your favorite things! xo

  17. Thanks for the inspiration Michelle and Patrick. Great interview and awesome poetry form. I look forward to your blog's challenges. Keeps poetry alive in my brain after being buried in my novels. :) Will give this one a try.

    1. Thanks so much for telling me that, Gayle! Happy to be of service. :)

  18. What a wonderful interview you have here Michelle. J. Patrick Lewis is one of our favourites. Great to see his humour, his wit, and his passion for poetry shine through in your conversation here. Lovely poem teasers too. :)

    1. Thank you, Myra. That was the first thing I noticed about Pat's interview as well, that his golden personality really shines through.

  19. Wonderful interview, Michelle and Patrick! I love the Zeno poem and can't wait to write one!

  20. Ooh, the kindergarten zeno poem is delightful. Looks so easy, but I imagine a fair amount of headbanging goes into one of those.

    Wonderful to see Pat here and to hear more about the inner workings of that brain of his. Thanks, Michelle!

  21. Finally get around to reading this interview with J. Patrick Lewis. This piece stands out to me: "Timeless qualities: ... words that motorboat on metaphor; and a rhythm that refuses to vacate the mind." Thank you, Michelle, for this brief look into Lewis' thoughts and poetry. I am hoping to get acquainted with zenos in the near future but have to deal with my desktop computer issues first since I am trying to compose a language arts association newsletter and the beginning of the Finding Fall Gallery.

  22. Visiting here for the first time, Michelle! A rhyming critique buddy, Sydney O'Neill, mentioned about the zeno challenge...and I am a sucker for challenges. I had never heard of a zeno before. But I'm definitely going to give it a try. I took Renee's LLL class this I see some familiar faces here. ;) The post by J. Patrick Lewis was inspirational and educational...thank you!

  23. Michelle, I am ready to send you my modest first attempt at creating a zeno via Twitter and email. Thank you for showcasing the new poetic format.

  24. Fantastic zeno challenge. Just read it tonight, so I'll take it on in the morning - thanks, Pat And Michelle!

  25. Loved this interview Michelle! Love Pat Lewis! He's such an inspiration!

  26. Wow - being out of commission with my injury for a couple of months meant I missed some amazing posts! Loved reading this interview with JPL. (Hey! I have a guard Chihuahua too!) and getting to know the zeno. Now I'm headed to today's post for your wrap-up... (Thanks to both of you!)